Monday, March 26, 2018

Thathamom: A guest post by my wife Nandu

Paati in Tamil means grandmother.  But I don’t think my husband has ever addressed his maternal grandma that way!  At around the time I got married to him through the arranged marriage process 11 years ago, I was told by his family members that when he barely started speaking, he called her, “Thathamma.”  And since no one, starting with Thathamma, had the heart to correct him, the moniker stuck.  As I got to know her better and heard more stories of Ram's childhood, I remarked to him that she should be called Thathamom as she was a most integral part of Ram’s childhood, showering him with unconditional maternal love and affection. 

Thathamom with my beautiful mother-in-law
For anyone that knows Thathamma, they will agree that she is not the quintessential Tambram grandmother.  She is very cool, loves to eat out, be it Mumbai chaat, South Indian tiffin varieties or even ice cream.  A few years ago, when she visited us in North Carolina, we took her to an ice cream place.  She really enjoyed the experience and smilingly remarked the next day, “I don’t mind going there again!”  Of course, Ram being the strict grandson (!) that he is, said that sugary stuff was not good for her health.  Well, I couldn’t convince him because he seemed to have a watertight argument – she was diabetic!  One of the other things that I like about Thathamma is that she is very religious and ritualistic but finds a way to make that coexist with modern thoughts and broad mindedness.  Once, during the concluding portions of a rather long winded prayer meeting, she said to me that I probably would not feel comfortable wearing a saree for such a long time and urged me to change into casual clothing.  I thought that that was very genuine and generous of her.

Thathamma’s life revolves around her grand kids- as a kid, my husband was pampered beyond words by her.  After Ram’s aunt had a daughter in 2004, Thathamma was very involved in her upbringing.  I have some very fond memories of her visits to the US where I enjoyed being the subject of the same kind of affection that Ram and his cousin enjoyed.

Thathamma is not only a wonderful cook but also a lovely host.  Her cutlet, pongal and sandwich (which she calls “chilly cheese toast”) are all to die for!  In fact, while I enjoyed his previous write-up, “Warmly Served” the only bone I had to pick with Ram was that he did not write enough about Thathamma.  She embodies every virtue that he wrote about in that article.  Her generosity of spirit as a host is very symptomatic of her as a person.  She is just a very giving soul, in general. 

But this giving soul needs something from all of you readers now – your prayers.  On January 1st 2018, Thathamma suffered a massive cardiac arrest.  By the grace of God, she survived but she is still recovering slowly, as it has taken a heavy toll on her quality of life.  For a person that lost her husband 24 years ago and her second child 18 months ago, this health crisis is too heavy a burden.  Not a day passes by without all of us praying for her continued recovery.  Dear reader, if you are religious, pray for her.  If you are not, it doesn’t matter - just think happy thoughts for her.  For a person that has personified giving for 82 years, it is time to get all the strength, of body and of mind, to deal with this health crisis. Something tells me that she will come out of this healthier.  After all, I need to buy her the ice cream that my husband once denied her!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Warmly Served

Summer of 1993 – I was still a year away from entering my teens.  My Aunt (who passed away in 2016) and Uncle had moved temporarily to an apartment building just two streets away from where my grandparents lived.  Technically, I did not ‘live’ at my grandparents’ place.  But…well, you get the idea!  The tradition must have been in place before I was born because for as long as I can remember, my grandma, my Mom and my Aunt always made vengaya sambar (sautéed shallots mixed with lentils) and potato curry every Sunday for lunch. 

My Aunt loved to have the cake and eat it too!  My Mom offers the cake, while my grandma admiringly watches on.  There I am, with my eye on the cake.  They say that you can tell the foodies early!
During the period that my Aunt had moved close by – thank heavens that the construction of their house took a long time! – I would go to their place every Sunday for lunch.  She was a fabulous cook.  Funnily enough, she would invariably make tasty curries, delectable side dishes but make a bit of a mess of…of all things, rice!  I once remember that when she offered my Uncle water during a meal, he joked, “Don’t bother!  The rice is watery enough!” (Poor thing, she must have turned off the pressure cooker a tad early!)  But as I have mentioned elsewhere, she was a sport.  So, she would laugh off her own clumsiness.  Her smiling countenance was the usher to an enjoyable hour during which she would, at times, gently rib me for my lack of work ethic.  As I think about it, it was not so gentle!  Nevertheless, she enjoyed taking that privilege with me.  Sometimes I would bristle, at other times I would turn a deaf ear.  (Neither reaction, I suppose, was very mature!) 

She and my Uncle then moved into their house which was farther from our place.  Somehow my Sunday routine was broken.  I never thought much of that until I was revisiting some of those moments in my mind, after she left us.  My memories of 1993 taught me an important life lesson that food is a matter of comfort more than taste.  Of course, as was her wont, she never said this to me.  As I reflect on my interactions with others, I can safely say that not everyone has stacked up to her in this respect.  I don’t expect them to but some of my negative experiences have taught me to be more appreciative of welcoming, hospitable folks.  Even among my near and dear, while I take privileges, I try to not be insensitive.  This is one area where I strive to emulate my father - he never fails to acknowledge and thank the cook in question for every meal of his, even if prepared by my Mom, grandma or my wife.  It might sound like overkill but as I emulate him, I just look at it as giving people their due for the time and effort put into preparing a meal.

My Aunt's daughter - clearly, enjoyment of food runs in the family! (This pic is from Dec 2012)
An incident that happened in my late teens which I find impossibly hard to erase from my memory was a visit to an acquaintance’s place.  I was not invited for a meal.  But as we struck up a conversation – I may have had some blind spots here, to be abundantly honest – I thought that everybody was having a fun time.  One of the members of the host family urged that I stay for lunch while another made a long face…that I noticed.  But instead of politely refusing the offer and leaving right then, I inexplicably stayed back.  And trust me, hunger or a rapacious appetite were not the reasons I stayed back.  I just did not have the sureness of foot to act decisively and leave in an unfussy manner.  Some delicious items were on offer at the table – heck, the rice was very well cooked here! - but even now as I think of that incident, I want to eject every morsel that went into my system that day.  Since then, I have been exposed to all permutations and combinations (good meal / unfriendly host, tasteless meal / delightful host, and so on) and I have come to the natural conclusion that the vibes matter the most.  The taste of the food is a nice-to-have. (For the record, during this incident, the person that made the face did not have to cook a thing; the meal was ready and was made by someone else.  And, the family were very wealthy and had good support staff - no paucity of food issues there either!)  

On the other hand, I have grown more sensitive to the fact that there are times when meals for guests are imposed on a member of the household by a spouse, a parent or even a child.  That especially if only one person is preparing a meal for others, that it is utterly unreasonable for me as a guest to expect them to not look harried or overworked.  I try my best to avoid putting people in that situation.  Thanks to the aforementioned incident, I dine at a person’s place only when I trust them to the hilt.  When I am unsure, I visit people outside of typical meal times so that I can leave before someone even broaches a conversation about a meal.
Of course, I have close, trustworthy friends and extended family members who have made me feel welcome.  And my blind spots too have thankfully dwindled in size.  They say that hindsight is 20:20.  But I have realized that heightened awareness can be also be a reliable pair of lenses to view this world through.  It is my sincere desire to act sensitively, decisively and empathetically when I visit people.  And as a host, I hope that I am able to make people feel loved, welcomed and valued when they visit me.  Those vibes that they hopefully experience, more than the aroma of the chai that I make, are what will make my Aunt smile from up above and know that the lessons ‘taught’ in 1993 have been indelibly imprinted in my mind.  The mind that bottles the scents of my memories of her.  Scents that extend far beyond those that wafted from her vengaya sambar.